Having long been used as an invaluable tool for researchers, planners, architects, insurance adjusters, and even environmental consultants, fire insurance plans can tell us a lot about the history of our cities and towns. Not only do they show us what materials a building was constructed from, but also other information such as what the street names and addresses were, property setbacks, location of openings such as doors and windows, and the purpose of the building at that time. There was one company that dominated the fire insurance plan industry in Canada between 1875 and 1917. That was the firm of Charles E. Goad, Civil Engineers of Montréal. By 1910, his firm had produced detailed fire insurance plans for over 1300 cities and towns in Canada, plus hundreds more around the world. In this week’s article, I’ll show you how to read a fire insurance plan and how you might find one useful if you live or work in an older building.
Fire insurance policies first emerged in the late 1600’s in London as a result of the Great Fire of 1666. Wealthy merchants and the aristocracy took out government sponsored fire insurance policies to protect their properties and business ventures against the ever present threat of fire. By 1750, such policies became accessible to all classes who wanted to protect their homes and livelihoods. When the Industrial Revolution began to kick into high gear by 1780, fire insurance companies began looking for ways to protect themselves against costly losses by having a more clear record of what they were actually insuring. The result was the creation of the first fire insurance plans which detailed, street by street, the buildings present plus their construction materials and usage.
Some of the earliest surviving fire insurance plans in Canada are contained in the Boulton Atlas for Toronto published in 1858. These plans are not as detailed as what would be produced a few decades later, but they are a fabulous architectural record of what the city of Toronto looked like in the mid nineteenth century. Below is a detailed section of one of the Boulton plans. The Boulton Atlas indicates street names, names of known businesses and construction materials. Wood framed buildings are in grey while stone/brick buildings are in red.
On the bottom left hand corner of this Boulton map, you can see Osgoode Hall (click all maps/pictures for a larger size image). Immediately to the east, or the right hand side of the page, there is the block between Albert and Louisa streets containing a number of buildings and a lumber yard. This is now the site of Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. Further to the east is the corner of Terauley and Queen Streets. This is the current site of Old City Hall, designed in 1899 by architect E. J. Lennox. Terauley was the name of the family estate owned by John Simcoe McCauley, a prominent politician and Director of the Bank of Upper Canada. The estate was located where today’s Church of the Holy Trinity is located, right across from the Eaton Centre.
When McCauley sold the estate and grounds in 1845, it was on the agreement that the land would be used to build a church. Designed by architect Henry Bowyer Lane, who was also the designer of many of Osgoode Hall’s additions, the Church of the Holy Trinity was constructed in 1847. It has survived many applications over the years to demolish it to make way for the Eaton’s Centre and its various expansions. The Church is now designated under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act. Terauley Street was renamed Bay Street in 1922 and Louisa Street, Downey’s Lane and Albert Lane ceased to exist in 1975 when construction of the Toronto Eaton Centre began. This is just one example of how important fire insurance maps are in detailing the changes over time of the built and natural heritage landscapes of our cities and towns.
Similar to what happened in Britain during the Industrial Revolution, fire insurance brokers in nineteenth century Canada wanted to have an idea of what their potential risks were with insuring buildings. However, there were no Canadian based companies doing these surveys. So, in 1874, the D. A. Sanborn Company from New York began drawing up detailed fire insurance plans at the request of several Canadian fire insurance companies. In 1875, a young Montréal based civil engineer and draughtsman, Charles Edward Goad, had heard about the Sanborn Company doing up these plans in the city. Goad came to Canada at the age of 21 in 1869 from England. In London, he received training and experience as a draughtsman and map maker. With this experience, he felt he could directly compete with Sanborn and started looking at drawing up plans for Canadian towns which Sanborn had not yet visited. Goad’s first fire insurance plan was for Levis, Québec. Within a few months, Goad had produced plans for fifteen towns and cities in Ontario and Québec. He had quickly established himself as serious Canadian competition to the Sanborn Company. By 1879, Goad bought out all of Sanborn’s Canadian interests and, in 1881, he created the journal Insurance Society which was primarily a vehicle to advertise his plans and services to the insurance community. In 1885, Goad had an office in Montréal and Toronto and he opened a third in London, England to tap into the British market. Between the years of 1895 and 1908, he also made fire insurance plans for cities in Chile, Denmark, Egypt, France, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, Venezuela, and the Caribbean. Goad died in Toronto in 1910 leaving a staggering record of 1300 fire insurance plans for Canadian towns and cities with hundreds more done around the world. His sons continued to carry on the business until it stopped making fire insurance plans in 1917. The Canadian Underwriter’s Association acquired all of the Goad stock in 1935 and, with eventual technological changes on how buildings were risk-assessed, the industry as a whole finally stopped producing fire insurance plans in 1975, a full one hundred years after Charles Goad first began making them.
So, how does one read a fire insurance plan? It’s actually quite easy once you get to recognise the symbols used in the legends. For small communities such as Howick, Quebec, a fire insurance plan consisted of just one sheet. For places such as Vancouver, Toronto or Ottawa, the city was broken down into sections and a plan was done up for each of these sections. Each section map was bound into a book. These books were not printed in runs then sold. Each fire insurance company pre-ordered a bound copy of the plans for their city/town. Because each book was printed by the order, relatively few were ever printed and even fewer survive today.
The picture to the left is called the Key Plan for the City of Vancouver from 1897. Each of the shaded blocks is represented by a number. That number referred to the detailed and expanded sheet plan in the book. The sheet plans would break down that part of the city street by street, building by building. Fire insurance plans were updated frequently as buildings were either demolished, altered or destroyed by fire. For Vancouver, in particular, these plans were updated almost yearly between 1907 and 1920 because the city was experiencing a significant boom to its population.
Let’s look at one particular intersection in downtown Vancouver as an example of how buildings and streetscapes have changed over the years. The intersection we’ll focus on is Hastings and Granville Streets in the downtown area, near Gastown. To the left is Sheet 3 from the 1897 Vancouver Fire Insurance Plan by Charles Goad. On the bottom right third of the sheet is the corner of Granville and Hastings. On the west side of Granville (left side of Granville on the map) you will see a red building outlined with blue labeled the MacKinnon Building. A simple colour reference to remember in reading a fire insurance plan for buildings is this: yellow is a wood frame building, blue denotes a stone construction (or sometimes concrete) and red is brick. In the case of the MacKinnon building, where it has two colours, it means it is a brick building faced with a stone/concrete veneer on the Granville and Hastings frontages. The blue circle at the corner of the building means there is a fire hydrant present on the street right of way. Any smaller building on site coloured in grey means an out building such as barn, drive shed, light industrial shop, or similar type utility structure. A grey building with a diagonal cross over it is specifically a horse stable (a fire insurance company needed to know if any horses lost in a fire would need to be compensated!). On the MacKinnon Building itself, the dashed lines denote an interior wall, meaning this structure had five lower floor suites. The fire map also shows us who occupied the building. The Bank of Commerce occupied the space at 407 Granville Street. The rest were general offices. The angled shorter dash line indicates a pop-up roofline along the corner and Hastings Street side, giving the building a fifth floor for added space. This is confirmed by the number five in the top right corner of the building.
Across the street to the right is another interesting building that also shows us how these plans were edited. The brick structure along the Granville Street side is listed as under construction as of June 1901. Do you see how some parts of this map look white compared to the light tan areas of the original paper? Because fire insurance plan books were pre-ordered then printed, Goad found it more practical to reprint only the parts of the original survey sheet which had changed. The solution was to resurvey the building lot with the new information, then write up the changes accordingly, and mail out that revised section of the plan to the insurance adjusters. Each owner of the book in that city then pasted over top of the original map the changes to a particular building. For future architectural historians, they have now lost the original record of what the building looked like before the changes were glued over top of the original page. In fact, we are lucky today that these maps survive at all. Many insurance adjusters threw the books away when they became obsolete. The maps that have ended up in repositories today were quite often a result of businesses forgetting they had these editions by leaving them on a back shelf or in a vault somewhere.
As we can see, this structure across from the MacKinnon Building was a wood framed structure with a brick veneer façade, a drive shed to the south of the property and a two storey structure divided into five ground floor units. At the corner of Hastings and Granville, there was a third storey made of wood and an octagonal shape suggesting this was a decorative pop-up turret designed to give added attic space and more light. Coming down Granville Street and turning east onto Hastings is the street car railway line. This line has been replaced with overhead electrical wires for today’s modern trolley buses which still follow this route from Granville to Hastings.
Knowing the names of these buildings can then help the researcher looks for any photographic record. The MacKinnon building was named for J. M. MacKinnon, a lumber merchant, who had the building constructed in 1897. In the 1930’s the building became known as the Williams Block and held a number of offices, a drug store and flats on the upper floor. This Richardson Romanesque building was demolished in 1957 to make way for the current office tower that stands on the site. This photograph to the right was taken shortly after the MacKinnon building was completed and around the time the fire insurance plan was produced. We can see the stone façade, the five storeys, the fire hydrant outside and the street car tracks that curved around the corner onto Hastings.
The structure with the third floor turret has an interesting history and, sadly, had it survived it might likely be a protected building today because of its historical and associative value to the development of Vancouver. The picture on the right is how this building appeared on July 1, 1888. Then, it was Alfred Bunker’s wholesale grocers shop and chemist. It had also been the first Customs House for Vancouver. In 1883, it was the personal home of Lauchlan Alexander Hamilton, the CPR’s chief land commissioner and surveyor for Vancouver, who was sent there to survey the land to create plans of subdivision, streets and neighbourhoods between 1883 and 1888. All the streets in the downtown core and through the east end to Gastown, were surveyed by Hamilton. And the names of the streets from Pender, Dunsmuir, Granville, Richards, Oppenheimer, Burrard, Hastings, Heather, Oak, Robson and so on were named by Hamilton. The streets were named after people who were important at the time or who had previous importance in the early history of Vancouver’s development. In some cases, Hamilton took the names from Admiralty charts of the area when he was running short of names. In this 1888 picture of Hamilton House, the view is looking east toward today’s Gastown and Downtown East Side. To the right side of Hamilton House is the Leland House Hotel. Directly across the street is the newer, three storey Leland Hotel built to take the place of the aging, wood-framed Leland House Hotel. None of these buildings exist anymore and the empty space across the street on the northeast side of Hastings is now the site of the Harbour Centre Tower, home of the Top of Vancouver revolving restaurant.
Hamilton House was demolished in 1907 to make way for the larger, more impressive Canadian Bank of Commerce headquarters in Vancouver. The bank wanted something impressive by being visually appealing and monumental in its scale and design. What they got was one of the finest works produced in western Canada by the great bank building architects John A. Pearson and Frank Darling from Toronto. This 1910 photo shows the Canadian Bank of Commerce building dominating the skyline. It dwarfs the wood framed Leland House Hotel to the left. Just a few short years later in 1915, the Canadian Bank of Commerce no longer dominated the skyline. To its right on Hastings, the Leland House Hotel had been demolished to make way for the Canada Life Assurance Company’s new Vancouver office building. The Strand Hotel was demolished in the 1930s. Today, the Canadian Bank of Commerce is the home of Birks Jewelers.
Fire insurance plans are an excellent way for anyone wishing to connect with their community’s built heritage past. If you own an older home that may have been reclad in vinyl siding in the last fifty years, a fire insurance plan can tell what lurks underneath, whether it be brick or wood frame. A number of University libraries across the country, plus large archives or community reference libraries, have copies of these plans not just for the community, but for other cities and towns as well. Contact your local university or library archive to see if they have a copy for your community. You never know. You might find your home or business on a fire insurance plan!
All of the historic photos of Vancouver are courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives website. The fire insurance plans are courtesy of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. Both have their sources available online for everyone to access. A special thank you goes to both of them for making these invaluable historic resources available to all.